Web3 Has an Identity Crisis on its Hands


Anyone who has interacted with ChatGPT has experienced this unsettling question: “Is this thing human or not?” 

That question is, in essence, the long-awaited failure of the Turing Test.

We’ve been unwittingly using the Turing Test as a proxy for online identity for decades now.  Over time, it would become clear whether we were interacting online with a person or a machine. 

With the advent of ChatGPT and generative AI, however, we can no longer rely on the Turing Test as a proxy for “I’m human.” And digital personhood ultimately requires some way of knowing whether or not we are dealing with a real person.  

Web3’s vision of digital personhood has relied on both decentralization and the Turing Test to be able to say, “I’m human and I control these digital assets.” When ChatGPT broke the Turing Test, it showed us that decentralization alone is insufficient for digital personhood.

If we’re serious about digital personhood, then it’s time to get serious about digital identity.  

We have to architect Web3 to support identity from the top down.

What makes a human, human?

Many may be surprised to learn that the digital identity movement has its own Satoshi-like figure who authored the definitive white paper on digital identity a full seven years prior to Satoshi’s famous Bitcoin white paper. 

In 2005, Kim Cameron brought the stone tablets of identity management down from the mountaintop when he published his landmark paper, The Laws of Identity.

While Kim may not have been as mysterious as Satoshi, his work on digital identity was as definitive as Satoshi’s work on decentralization.  

Kim put forward a problem statement for digital identity that was as simple, clear, and concise as Satoshi’s problem statement for decentralization. It’s instructive to look at them both together.

Kim’s identity problem statement (2005)The Internet was built without a way to know who and what you are connecting to.

Satoshi’s decentralization problem statement (2012): Commerce on the Internet has come to rely almost exclusively on financial institutions serving as trusted third parties to process electronic payments.

While these two problems are distinct, they are inextricably intertwined. We have to know who and what we are connecting to online (Kim/identity), and we have to be able to do so peer-to-peer, without an intermediary (Satoshi/decentralization). This is just as true in the digital world as it is in the real world.  

In a post-Turing Test world, however, the problem of identity has taken on a new urgency because machines are increasingly able to spoof people. We will not enjoy the full fruits of decentralization without also making digital identity a top priority.

Toward the end of his life, Kim gave us yet another way to think about the challenge of digital personhood. He gave a talk where he said that, when it comes to our online lives, “Content is what we are, aspects of our identity, but we don’t own it, we don’t keep it, we can’t control it. Basically, we lack a digital shelter that would offer the same fundamental privacy as a home.”  

In short, we are digitally homeless.

Just as personhood is impaired by homelessness in the real world due to lack of privacy, digital personhood is similarly impaired by digital homelessness in the digital world.  

Digital personhood requires a digital home — a digital place where we have the power to decide what parts of our digital selves we share with others and when and how we do so. That digital home is inseparable from our digital identity.  

Decentralization isn’t a sufficient principle for overcoming our digital homelessness. If we don’t also architect for digital identity, we will never know who or what we are connecting to online and AI bots will overwhelm human beings.  

Up until now, we’ve been able to skirt the architectural demands of digital identity because when push came to shove, we could lean on the Turing Test as a proxy for our humanness and we could manage our dispersed digital selves without ultimately requiring a centralized digital home. With the advent of Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, those days are gone. 

Kim Cameron, unfortunately, is gone too, but his Laws of Identity live on. All those who aspire to true digital personhood would do well to remember that Kim came before Satoshi, and identity comes before decentralization. 

As Kim said, in the online world, “content is what we are.” Now that generative AI has rendered human-quality content virtually free, we should make sure that we have an alternative method to value and recognize personhood in the digital world.

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